We walked further up the cliff towards the fourteenth century ‘cross’ that rises from its steps in front of the gatehouse. The Abbey, of course, was closed by the time we got there…if, indeed, it had been open at all on that bleak January day. Situated high on the cliff it is an imposing sight from anywhere in the town and it is impossible to hide the ruins behind a stone wall… so at least we could look and, with a bit of judicious clambering, get a few photographs.
I know it well. I spent many days here as a child and teenager. There is something about the place that has always drawn me back, as if the veils of time slip away and I see the days of old. But it is not to the grand ruins of the twelfth century that I am drawn, but to an older time. There was once a roundhouse on this headland, then the Romans tarried awhile, leaving the traces of their passing and it was not until the seventh century that the abbey came into being.
The original abbey was a wooden and thatched affair, founded in 657 AD by King Oswiu of Northumbria. He installed Hilda as its first abbess, a daughter of Hereric and his wife Breguswith of the Deiran royal house. Hilda had been raised a Christian and when she was thirty-three, she decided to join her sister in the convent at Chelles Abbey in Gaul. Instead, she was called by Bishop Aidan of Lindisfarne… later St Aidan… to come north to the settlement at Whitby… then called Streoneshalh… to become a nun and Abbess.
The monastic community at Streoneshalh was formed of both monks and nuns, living separately but sharing a communal life and worship, following the model of Ionian Christianity and the Celtic Church. As abbess, Hilda cared for the many small houses, home to two or three, the communal lands and possessions and those who worked them. It was here she met Cædmon, a simple man who tended the animals. He dreamed an angel and was inspired with song; this gift Hilda fostered.
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